Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The NAS Rejects Academic Freedom at Penn State

Yesterday's article by Ashley Thorne and Stephen Balch on Penn State's revision of HR 64 marks one of the worst statements by the NAS in its history. The NAS has always been a conservative group, but in the past they have been a group that at least had a casual acquaintance with academic freedom, speaking out in its defense and never to my knowledge calling for the repudiation of academic freedom.

When David Horowitz pushed for his “Academic Bill of Rights,” the NAS maintained a wary distance from him, never criticizing his attacks on academic freedom but refusing to join with him in denouncing the rights of professors to speak freely. Now that's changed, and the NAS seems to have become a purely political vehicle for right-wing ideology even when it attacks academic freedom.

The Thorne and Balch article is particularly insulting toward me personally, referring to “Cary Nelson, his groupie John K. Wilson....” I am hardly a “groupie” for Cary Nelson. The term “groupie” is meant to dismiss me as some kind of follower incapable of having my own ideas. The truth is that I published my first book on academic freedom in 1995, before Cary Nelson ever got involved with the AAUP and academic freedom issues. My second book on academic freedom, Patriotic Correctness, was published in 2008 and doesn't even mention Nelson. I'm clearly not a groupie, and such dismissive terms don't belong in an intellectual debate.

Ashley Thorne and Stephen Balch, for example, are not “groupies” of David Horowitz, although I'm shocked by their effusive praise for him. They call Horowitz “a longtime champion of academic freedom.”

In my book Patriotic Correctness, I note the numerous conservatives who criticized Horowitz's heavy-handed and repressive attempt at legislating the Academic Bill of Rights, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, John Leo of Minding the Campus, Harvey Silverglate of FIRE, Jesse Walker of Reason, David Beito, KC Johnson, and Ralph Luker.

The NAS apparently is now embracing Horowitz as a “champion” of academic freedom. I would challenge the NAS to read the chapter in my book about Horowitz and explain whether they endorse all of Horowitz's views about silencing political speech on campuses.

Thorne and Balch write, “We can only conclude that the AAUP has repudiated its original document on academic freedom and is opting for more 'living,' evolving definitions.” Yes, that's exactly right. In fact, the AAUP repudiated its original document more than 70 years ago. The 1915 AAUP Statement was great for its time, but it proved to be flawed when turned into operational campus policies rather than a guide for professors. That's why the AAUP moved to its 1940 Statement. And when that statement proved to be too limiting for academic freedom, the AAUP amended it with the 1970 Interpretive Principles. And the AAUP has constantly put out statements and reports updating the meaning of these words. There is no “irony” in Cary Nelson rejecting certain flawed language in a Statement that the AAUP long ago rejected. If we accepted the Supreme Court's view of the First Amendment in 1915 as the true meaning of free speech, rather than the evolving definitions developed since then, the entirety of First Amendment law protecting individual liberty would be sweeped aside. Sometimes, change is good.

Most of the 1915 Statement is still excellent, but a few provisions are deeply flawed. For example, the 1915 AAUP statement declares about professors speaking in the classroom, “Such utterances ought always to be considered privileged communications. Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large.” The Statement adds, “As a matter of common law, it is clear that the utterances of an academic instructor are privileged, and may not be published, in whole or part, without his authorization. But our practice, unfortunately, still differs from that of foreign countries, and no effective check has in this country been put upon such unauthorized and often misleading publication.”

I completely disagree with the AAUP's 1915 Statement on this point. I am disgusted by the idea that anyone would try to ban the publication of a professor's classroom statements. Does the NAS endorse this terrible idea? If not, aren't they guilty of repudiating the AAUP's 1915 Statement and (gasp!) updating the meaning of academic freedom?

The NAS also endorses this line from the 1915 AAUP Statement: “The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest of the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim.” The NAS tries to explain this further: “faculty members should use rigorous intellectual methods and arrive at their conclusions through logic and evidence.”

Well, of course, everyone thinks faculty (and everybody else) should use rigor and logic and evidence. The question is, how do you enforce this? Does the NAS really believe that academic freedom only exists for faculty who have “the temper of the scientific inquirer”? Do they trust administrators to enforce policies about the “temper” of faculty and whether it is adequately scientific? Do you want professors to be investigated and brought before a campus hearing on charges of not using “rigorous intellectual methods” in the classroom? Or do they believe, as I do, that professors should have academic freedom and their alleged lack of logic and evidence in the classroom should be debated in the marketplace of ideas, not decided in the repressive realm of disciplinary hearings?

Restrictions on political bias are dangerous (and wrong) in general, and can be used against liberals and conservatives alike. In my first book, The Myth of Political Correctness, I denounced Stanley Fish, the man who was the director of my publisher, Duke University Press, and who was responsible for my book being published, because he had proposed banning NAS members from campus committees due to their political bias. Fish argued, “you wouldn't want on a personnel or curriculum committee somebody who had already decided, in terms of fixed political categories, what is or is not meritorious.”(54) Fish was wrong. And his mistake reveals the danger of trusting administrators to judge whether someone has the proper “temper” and “scientific inquiry” rather than political attitudes. Fish's argument (then and now) embodied the errors of the 1915 AAUP Statement, and it appalls me to see the NAS embracing today an argument that was once used to justify repression against its own members.

The NAS is offended at this line being dropped from HR 64: “No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study.” Does the NAS really believe that university administrators should be given the power to prohibit faculty from discussing controversial topics in the classroom? Does the NAS agree with Horowitz's efforts at Penn State to declare that showing “An Inconvenient Truth” in a social studies class violated this rule because environmental issues are outside the field of the social sciences? Who does the NAS trust to enforce a ban on controversial topics?

Thorne and Balch argue about me and others, “They do not realize that freedom without responsibility is cheap, and that professors lose respect when they use their positions to advance off-hand views unrelated to the subjects they’ve presumably mastered. Once that respect is lost, academic freedom is likely to follow.”

This is an ancient argument, and one that inspired the original flawed phrases in the AAUP 1915 Statement now embraced by the NAS as if it were some kind of original intent evidence of the “pure” form of academic freedom that the AAUP today sullies. The truth is, I agree that professors do lose respect when they say stupid things in their classes, and academic freedom is likely to be harmed by irresponsible behavior.

The same argument could be said about freedom of speech in general. When people say stupid and irresponsible things, then other people are more likely to support censorship. But it makes no sense to support censorship in order to prevent censorship. I defend the rights of Muhammad cartoonists (and I have published them myself) even though it causes some people to be deeply offended and urge restrictions on free speech.

The NAS is pushing the coward's approach to academic freedom, declaring that we must limit academic freedom to what is popularly acceptable in order to preserve it. I disagree. I think we must expand academic freedom to be exactly what it should mean and then educate the public about the reasons why academic freedom is so important.

Horowitz's whole crusade, as he repeatedly has declared, is to turn the AAUP's archaic moral statements of faculty responsibility in the classroom into enforceable policies (either at the campus or legislative level) so that students can file complaints and set a repressive bureaucracy in motion whenever a student thinks that a professor has expressed a political opinion or assigned a controversial book.

Does the NAS endorse this stand? Does it support Horowitz's efforts at Penn State to have the showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” by itself be deemed illegitimate and prohibited by the administration? That's what Horowitz's vision of HR 64 stood for, and until now I could never have imagined that the NAS would embrace such attacks on academic freedoms.

Let's hope that the NAS as an organization, and Thorne and Balch as individuals, will re-think where they stand and join the efforts at Penn State and elsewhere to expand academic freedom for everyone.

No comments: